There is always a will-he-won’t-he transfer saga that dominates a transfer window in Europe. In the summer of 2020, Borussia Dortmund forward Jadon Sancho found himself as the protagonist. The England international had emerged as Manchester United’s leading target, and Dortmund was willing to do business if their asking price – thought to be around £100 million – was met.
It was not. Dortmund issued a deadline and insisted Sancho would not be going anywhere if he was still on their books at the start of their pre-season training camp. That date in early August came and went, but the rumors continued until the window closed almost two months later.
Sancho was not the only young English talent at the center of a transfer story involving Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, though. The two clubs were also competing for the signature of Jude Bellingham, a precociously gifted 17-year-old who was starring for a Birmingham City side competing in the second tier of English soccer. In the end, Dortmund won the race.
“Man United have a great squad,” Bellingham told the Guardian last month. “And my decision had nothing to do with Man United. I was so focused and so happy with the interest from Dortmund that this became my first choice. It was never: ‘It’s this over this club.’ For me it was Borussia Dortmund, and that’s it.
The way they integrate young players into the first-team squad is next level. There is not a club in Europe that does it quite like them. The way they are pushed and can also be reeled back in. They can review your performances. There is a person there for every player, especially Otto [Addo, the former Dortmund striker], who has worked with the young players. He is great. Everyone has that support system to work for their chance in the first team.
It already seems like Bellingham made the right decision. He was expected to remain in the shadows this season, perhaps getting a game here and there in the DFB-Pokal and making occasional appearances on the bench for Bundesliga matches. Instead, Bellingham quickly becomes a regular under Lucien Favre and looks set to retain that status under Edin Terzic.
That is a testament to Bellingham’s mentality as well as his quality. He has already gone past the 10-appearance mark in the Bundesliga, with more than half of those outings coming from the beginning of matches. The midfielder also featured in all six of Dortmund’s Champions League group stage games, and will no doubt be involved when BVB meet Sevilla in the round of 16 in February. His showing against Lazio in October made him the youngest Englishman to ever play in Europe’s foremost club competition.
Bellingham does not turn 18 until June 2021. It is rare for a player of his age to be a regular starter at a top club like Dortmund. It is even rarer when you consider his position on the pitch. While is it not uncommon to see teenage wingers strutting their stuff in a major European league, you do not get many 17-year-old central midfielders who play as often as Bellingham.
Favre said of the former Birmingham starlet earlier this season:
First and foremost, I am interested in playing intelligence. With someone like Bellingham, I don’t look at the date of birth. He has the technical skills and a feel for space. That’s why it’s easy for me to work with such a talent.
It was clear from his performances for Birmingham for last season that Bellingham was a special player in the making. At the age of just 16, he made 44 appearances for the Blues in all competitions and missed just five of their league games in the Championship. He started out on the left-wing, before being moved into midfield once his manager, Pep Clotet, was confident he could handle the extra responsibility in the engine room.
Bellingham won the English Football League Young Player of the Year award, and Birmingham made the extraordinary gesture of retiring his No.22 shirt after just one season in the first team. That move was widely ridiculed, but anyone who watched Birmingham play the last term was in no doubt about the teenager’s talent.
Bellingham’s grounding in the Championship will serve him well. Playing senior football against hardened professionals is invaluable to a youngster’s development. Bellingham is certainly further ahead than he would have been had he spent last season in a Premier League academy playing for the Under-23s.
His decision to join Dortmund is proof that the club’s reputation for improving young players now extends far beyond Germany. In Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Werder Bremen, Bellingham was joined in the starting XI by a 20-year-old Sancho, a 17-year-old Gio Reyna and a 16-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko. Erling Haaland, 20, missed out through injury.
Following the sacking of Favre last week, Terzic was appointed Dortmund boss until the end of the season. Bayern Munich opted for a similar arrangement when they parted company with Niko Kovac in the first half of last season, with Hansi Flick stepping in as caretaker manager.
Of course, Flick’s excellent work soon earned him a permanent contract, even before he had led Bayern to Bundesliga and Champions League glory. Terzic will be hoping for the same outcome, although winning either competition will be difficult – BVB are +1200 to triumph in the Bundesliga and +2000 to secure the Champions League trophy with DraftKings Sportsbook.
Borussia Monchengladbach manager Marco Rose remains the favorite to take the reins at Signal Iduna Park next summer, but whoever is in charge of Dortmund at the start of the 2021/22 campaign will be grateful for the presence of numerous talented youngsters in the squad. So far this season, the 17-year-old Bellingham has shown that age is just a number.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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